New Competitor at the Bench


Thirty young musicians from around the globe will arrive in Pasadena this week for two weeks of concerts, competition and serious practice in the new Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition and Festival, the latest entry in the crowded world of music contests.

The event--a joint venture of the Russian Ministry of Culture, the city of Pasadena and Pasadena’s Master Classes International, a nonprofit that brings international artists to Los Angeles in various teaching programs--will cover travel expenses for the 30 pianists, ages 18 to 30, who were selected from 75 hopefuls from 25 countries who entered themselves into the competition via videotaped auditions.

A first round of recitals will narrow the field to 12, and a second round will produce six finalists. Those six will be required to play two more pieces--a Beethoven concerto and a Rachmaninoff piece--in two more rounds to determine the grand prize winner, who will be awarded $30,000 and a Kawai professional grand piano valued at $28,000.

Douglas Yoder, executive director of the competition, acknowledges the difficulty of launching a new piano competition into a world dominated by such well-established events as the Tchaikovsky, Leeds and Van Cliburn competitions, held in Russia, England, and Texas, respectively.

Still, Yoder says there is room for one more--and offers that a Rachmaninoff competition is particularly apt for Los Angeles, because the Russian emigre composer, pianist and conductor performed at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and died in Beverly Hills in 1943.


And, though others in the piano competition can--and do--disagree on the matter, Yoder thinks the world of piano competitions is due for an ethical overhaul, comparing the scene with ice skating events at this year’s Winter Olympic Games. There are numerous examples of judging controversies in piano competition, including a scene in the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, when pianist Martha Argerich stormed off the jury to protest the early elimination of young pianist Ivo Pogorelich.

Trouble followed Pogorelich to Pasadena in 1993, when charges of nepotism on the jury swirled around the first Ivo Pogorelich International Solo Piano Competition at Ambassador Auditorium.

“This scandal that happened with the Olympics would be small potatoes for a piano competition,” asserts Yoder, referring to the much-publicized controversy in pairs figure skating that led to gold medals for both the Russian and Canadian pairs. “On a scale of 1 to 10, [that] would be a 2 or 3, compared to the horse trading that goes on.”

Yoder says that the Rachmaninoff Competition has lured a stellar panel of judges by promising “a competition in the old way,” with a set of controls in place to prevent politicization.

This year’s 13-member jury includes celebrated Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, first-prize winner in the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition; Russian pianist Dmitri Bashkirov; American concert pianist Byron Janis; and pianist Earl Wild, 86, who performed with Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini.

Wild, who has served as a judge for several competitions, including the Van Cliburn in the 1980s, echoes Yoder’s claims that many piano competitions have become incestuous, with some judges pushing their own students or pupils of their friends.

“I found it revolting; that sort of did me in [for competitions] for a while,” he says. “But I’ve always been connected to Rachmaninoff’s music. I thought I would try again.”

Via e-mail, Ashkenazy, who rarely acts as a competition judge, said the theme of the competition was a draw: “Rachmaninoff has always been very important to my musical life, and therefore it is appropriate that I have a very modest input in this festival.”

Master Classes International, the organization overseeing the event, was founded by Armenian musician Armen Ter-Tatevosian, a 10-year Los Angeles resident, who served as general manager of music programming for USSR State Radio for the Republic of Armenia and held the title of resident pianist for the USSR State Radio and Television Orchestra.

The organization maintains partnerships with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music and the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw. Alexandre Rachmaninoff, grandson of the composer and head of the Rachmaninoff Foundation in London, chairs the festival committee.

The Rachmaninoff Competition was announced two years ago with a proposed budget of $3 million to $3.5 million. Since then, the competition’s budget has been scaled back to a more modest $1 million--including $300,000 from the Russian Ministry of Culture, to cover the costs of bringing the Moscow Radio Symphony to Pasadena to play during the competition; a $350,000 donation from Los Angeles-based Pipeline Music, which controls the rights to the classical music archives of the Russian Federation; about $200,000 in money and in-kind donations from the city of Pasadena; and the rest from private donations.

Recent California state budget cuts, the rocky stock market and a dearth of major corporate grants caused festival organizers to adjust downward. As a result, many of the “festival” aspects of the event have been eliminated, including a multi-city tour of the winners and an April 1 concert at the Kodak Theatre featuring the Moscow Radio Symphony.

The Moscow Radio Symphony will accompany the pianists in the Rachmaninoff round of the finals competition; they will perform Beethoven with the Pasadena Symphony. Along with the grand prize, second and third prizes of $20,000 and $15,000 respectively will be awarded, as well as $5000 to the remaining three finalists, and $2500 each to the six semifinalists who don’t make the final rounds.

Yoder calls the procedure for the Rachmaninoff Competition superior to that of most piano competitions. For one thing, no judge may have been a teacher to any competitor for three years before the competition.

Also, some of the judges at the Pasadena event also participated in the preliminary rounds, judging the videotaped entries. Yoder says it is often the case that the more prestigious judges only participate during the final rounds, when the field has been weeded out by what is often, in his estimation, a less discerning panel. (He acknowledges that Ashkenazy will only judge the Rachmaninoff final rounds, due to scheduling problems.)

‘Interesting Pianists,

Some Real Personalities’

“The preliminary juries tend to select people who play fast, technically well and safely, but are not that interesting,” Yoder says. “Anybody who knows the piano knows that it is almost impossible to play the piano with a lot of artistic interest and note-perfect at the same time.

What has come out of [the Rachmaninoff process so far] is some really interesting pianists, some real personalities--the kind of people who get shut out of other competitions.”

Richard Rodzinski, president of the Van Cliburn Foundation and vice president of the World Federation of Music Competitions, an umbrella organization based in Geneva, disagrees.

Though he acknowledges that eliminating politics remains a constant battle for the federation, he describes the competition rules at, for instance, the Van Cliburn competition as “lily-white and crystal-clean.”

In the Van Cliburn event, Rodzinski says, a competitor’s teacher may be on the judging panel but must abstain from voting on that competitor. He adds that no judges are added or changed in the final rounds of the competition, and says that that requirement is standard in most major piano competitions."There is absolutely no horse trading because the scores are immediately made public to the jury,” Rodzinski says of the Van Cliburn competition. “If anybody is trying to do any monkey business, all his colleagues will see it right away.”

Rodzinski expressed surprise, however, upon being told that during the Rachmaninoff competition judges’ individual scores will be posted on a Web site.

“Very often, you will want to maintain close collegial relationships with a lot of these [competitors] for years afterward; how difficult would it be to do that if you know that a certain judge slammed you?” Rodzinski says.

Whether or not the Rachmaninoff Piano Competition and Festival breaks new ground when it comes to judging, at least one observer says that the time, and the place, is right to launch a new piano competition.

“Piano festivals are a dime a dozen, but I think this is a very smart move,” said Willem Wijnbergen, former executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now director of the Carmel Bach Festival.

“The way they are going about the U.S.-Russia alliance is very smart, and I think Pasadena, right now, is a classical music producers’ heaven, because there is a real community there. The resources and the mind-set are there.

“There is a whole romantic component to [Rachmaninoff’s] music; if you are a smart producer, you can milk the romance out of it; people like romance. And there’s also the connection with L.A. You can connect all these dots and come up with quite a picture.”


Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition. First and second rounds: Saturday-March 30, Norton Simon Museum; final rounds: April 2-5, Pasadena Civic Auditorium. First-round tickets: $25. Second-round tickets: $35. (213) 383-3528. Final rounds: $27-$120. (626) 449-7360.